Orientalism revisited – a review of Robert Irwin’s ‘Lust of Knowing’

In short, rather than a convincing refutation of Said’s work, Irwin has actually (albeit maybe unwittingly) produced a useful companion to ‘Orientalism’ (including both the prevalent criticisms of the work and a list of errata). ‘Lust of Knowing’ would have been even more useful if Irwin had resisted the mean-spirited and often disingenuous personal attacks that mar an otherwise informative and well-researched historical account. The book is also a warm celebration of a scientific discipline whose obvious and abundant mistakes can sometimes be explained as part of the normal dialectic of the scientific method, but more often seem to be simply a regrettable product of ‘the individual being largely confined to thinking in terms of the public discourse imprisoning him’ – although of course simultaneously demonstrating that ‘public discourse is for a large part created by the intellectual contributions of individuals’…

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading a highly informative and enjoyable book written by Robert Irwin and called ‘Lust of Knowing – The Orientalists and their Enemies’ (Allen Lane 2006/Penguin Books 2007). In it the author, a British scholar of considerable renown in the field of classical Arabic literature and art, embarks on a highly personal quest in which he seeks to denounce Edward Said’s enormously influential ‘Orientalism’. For those who don’t know the polemic book: its central thesis is that the study of ‘the east’ in ‘the west’ has always served mainly the political and military interests of western colonialism, and has over the centuries built up an intellectual construction of ‘the east’ which has little to do with what ‘the east’ actually is, and more with how ‘the west’ likes to see ‘the east’. The book was obviously a polemic rant against a real and existing situation, and as such – like most if not all polemic texts – was written in a flurry of rage and suffers from many factual errors and inconsistencies as well as instances of selective and biased treatment of its subject matter. Nevertheless, it made a number of valid points and hit some very tender nerves, becoming the basis for post-colonial studies and the expansion of area studies, while at the same time causing a wave of self-searching and reform in ‘traditional’ oriental studies (all of this in ‘the west’, of course). It remains essential reading for anybody studying the field of ‘orientalism’ and the Middle East.

Irwin embarks on what is in great part a rant of his own against Said, criticizing both the book and the man in various ways. Firstly, in an account which shows the deep personal wounds ‘Orientalism’ has inflicted on Irwin and many $other ‘old-school’ orientalists, he talks about the effect the book has had on both the self-confidence and the public view of orientalists, as well as on the field of oriental studies in general. Secondly, he points out the obvious factual errors and biased selectivity in Said’s treatment of his subject matter – which is hardly a new contribution to a discussion which has been going on since Said published his rant in 1978, although it does provide a useful and, I suppose, pretty exhaustive overview. Thirdly, in what is the meanest and lowest part of his discourse, he meticulously dissects Said’s personal life, attempting to show that the man was more ‘western’ than ‘eastern’ himself, and that he was not really a ‘Palestinian’ but rather a Lebanese Egyptian, as if that would somehow discredit his support for Palestine. All this presumably in an effort to disqualify him using his own weapons against him, going on to quote islamists as well as Arabic and Iranian nationalists using Said’s discourse to claim that only muslims are qualified to study islam and only ‘easterners’ are equipped to adequately study ‘the east’, and somehow trying to associate this discourse with the thoroughly secular and anti-essentialist Said. This is the most disingenuous part of Irwin’s rant, in which he frequently falls victim to the same inconsistencies and circular arguments of which he accuses Said. Irwin seems to be incapable of non-essentialist thinking and of embracing the concept that both a thesis and its antithesis might be true, depending on context, circumstances and the point of view one takes as a departure point. He frequently hammers, for example, on the fact that Said alternatively takes Gramsci’s position (‘public discourse is for a large part created by intellectual contributions of individuals’) and Foucault’s position (‘the individual is largely confined to thinking in terms of the public discourse imprisoning him’), as if the two are mutually exclusive rather than complementing each other. He tries to suggest this ‘contradiction’ in part by exaggerating and essentialising the two positions into caricatures of what they actually are. He also misses an essential point by concentrating mostly on the scholarly contributions of individual orientalists while dismissing or minimizing their public and popularizing work, which of course has a far bigger impact on the political and cultural public discourse. When talking about Bernard Lewis, for example, he argues that the man’s solid scholarly work in his early career should be given more value and attention than his public articles and advisory functions later on, which seems a strange way to refute Said’s thesis that it is exactly Lewis’s vulgarizing articles and their influence on public discourse that show the man’s obvious and utter bias and his unwavering support for Israel’s apartheid and colonialism and for US domination of the Middle East. Irwin constantly veers between on the one hand accusing Said of generalizing (collating indiscriminately scholars, artists, press writers, colonial administrators and politicians), and on the other hand of particularizing (ascribing too much influence on the public discourse to scholars and their writings and using personality traits and biographic facts to magnify this influence). Of course, in academic and scientific terms, Said was more of a generalist who covered various fields and always remained aware of the bigger picture and concerned with the influence of the various academic disciplines on public discourse at large, whereas Irwin limits himself to specialisation in a narrow field – and moreover lacks the personal involvement in the more political effects of that field – which goes some way in explaining both men’s divergent if not opposite intellectual positions.

But the most informative and interesting read in the book (and also, fortunately, the bulk of its contents) is Irwin’s own exhaustive account of the history of oriental studies in the west. His main thesis here – and rightly so – is that Said has conveniently neglected to refer to many, mostly German, French and Soviet Russian orientalists who were either not part of a colonising nation (in the case of Germany) or fierce anti-imperialists and anti-colonialists themselves (in the case of the many rather leftwing French orientalists as well as some Germans and Russians). Irwin’s account of the succession of personalities (many of them eccentric or intellectually ‘muddled’ to say the least) is highly entertaining in itself but it also, rather unexpectedly, confirms a number of Said’s theses that Irwin sets out to undermine, by showing how many of these scholars actually were, at some point or another in their lifes or careers, involved in the colonial administrations or foreign departments of their respective countries – and especially so in the cases of British and US oriental studies, which, as Irwin has to admit himself, were set up on a serious scale and financed extensively only after these countries started to be interested in colonizing or dominating the Middle East. He also shows convincingly how much racialist and religious bias did exist among many of these men (virtually no women were involved until very recently) throughout the centuries. In an example that perfectly illustrates the way Irwin’s personal enmity towards Said undermines his efforts to counter Said’s thesis, he takes specific pleasure in extensively denouncing the racism and bias of Louis Massignon, a personal tutor and ‘intellectual godfather’ of Said, who accordingly treats him rather respectfully in ‘Orientalism’. Nevertheless, Irwin also makes a valuable contribution to the argument that many orientalists were (and are) actually studying the orient out of sincere personal fascination and ‘lust of knowing’, and sympathising with – and often publicly defending – the right of the people of ‘the orient’ to decide their own fate and be spared enslavement, domination and colonisation by ‘the occident’.

In short, rather than a convincing refutation of Said’s work, Irwin has actually (albeit maybe unwittingly) produced a useful companion to ‘Orientalism’ (including both the prevalent criticisms of the work and a list of errata). ‘Lust of Knowing’ would have been even more useful if Irwin had resisted the mean-spirited and often disingenuous personal attacks that mar an otherwise informative and well-researched historical account. The book is also a warm celebration of a scientific discipline whose obvious and abundant mistakes can sometimes be explained as part of the normal dialectic of the scientific method, but more often seem to be simply a regrettable product of ‘the individual being largely confined to thinking in terms of the public discourse imprisoning him’ – although of course simultaneously demonstrating that ‘public discourse is for a large part created by the intellectual contributions of individuals’…

8 thoughts on “Orientalism revisited – a review of Robert Irwin’s ‘Lust of Knowing’

  1. btw, the automatically generated post above links to a blog by Ali Eteraz that has a post supportive of Irwin, but the most interesting part is the scathing comments on that post.
    Link:
    http://eteraz.wordpress.com/2008/06/17/is-saids-orientalism-debunked/
    It also links to an article which Irwin wrote for a series in the Guardian which appears to want to finish off Said’s heritage once and for all.
    And as far as Irwin’s ‘libel of the past’ accusation against Said in this article is concerned, why did Irwin himself wait for Said to die before he wrote this book?
    Link:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/14/middleeast

  2. ok, I seem to have reacted a bit hastily in concluding that the ‘Orientalism at 30’ series in the Guardian ‘appears to want to finish off Said’s heritage once and for all’ – it actually presents a selection of articles representing various sides of the debate. Sorry, Guardian…

  3. When you say that the book “was written in a flurry of rage and suffers from many factual errors”, you seem to be referring to Said’s work. I have never read something to that affect in any convincing critique of Orientalism. What do you base your comment on?

  4. Tigermarks, that is exactly the only convincing critque of Orientalism. Said was neither an historian nor an orientalist and there are a number of anachonisms and factual errors in the book, as any academic supporter of Said and his thesis will readily admit – and there are dozens of articles pointing this out. Of course, this does not take any value away from his central thesis, and Orientalism is hardly the only scientific work to contain such errors. As for the ‘written in a flurry of rage’ bit, that is not a criticism: the obvious indignation nd rage speaking from Orientalism only enhances its polemic value and its shock effect in shaking up a rusty discipline that often preferred (and prefers) to live isolated in a comfortable ivory tower full of books rather than facing reality (and the findings of psychology, sociology and political sciences during the last centruy or so) and acknowledging that ‘even’ academics are only human beings who are influenced by their ideologies and shaped by their environments and experiences like everybody else. As one of my professors once told me when I asked him where he drew the line between social science and activism: science IS activism, my friend! That is the main value of Said’s book and some factual errors or rash judgments here or there do not affect that in the least.

  5. And if you want the list of errors: read it in Irwin’s book or use his bibliography to read it elsewhere. I haven’t got an academic library in my house.

  6. Thanks for your info. I guess you can me a non-expert reader of Said’s who has been greatly influenced by his writings more indirectly than directly. In any case, this is the first time I hear some more or less convincing that Said’s work contained errors etc. All other criticism of his work was produced by flaming writers who were ideologically clouded by an agenda. I am sorry though; I do not share your view regarding polemic. I see it as the antithesis of science and academic work and have never seen Orientalism as polemic. Chomsky maybe, but not Said.

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